The story of the Good Samaritan may be one of the most familiar of all the stories in the Gospels. Certainly it is one that has made its way into our common cultural heritage. There are hospitals and schools and societies named for the anonymous person journeying through ancient Palestine that day. There is even a law in the United States named after him, a law that protects someone from potential liability if they give aid to a stranger in situations like the one we heard about.
Familiarity creates a challenge for us when we hear a story again because the ‘moral’ is already well known. With this one in particular, the moral has become part of our language, part of our cultural norms. Jesus wants us have to be like this Samaritan and go out of our way to help other people, particularly those who are in distress.
Yet, as one commentator pointed out, it is fairly easy to stop and help a stranger once, but what would this Samaritan have done if there were another robbery victim a mile or two up the road. Or if there were robbery victims on the roadside every time he made this trip to Jerusalem. Because that’s the way the world is, isn’t it. There are endless unfortunate people whom we could stop to help out; victims of robberies and victims of police violence; victims of wars and victims of disease and famine and drought.
If you know the musical Jesus Christ, Superstar you may recall the scene where Jesus himself is overwhelmed by the need of the endless numbers of sick and lame who are brought before him. And though there is no biblical basis for that scene, we do know that Jesus did not heal all the sick nor bind up the wounds of all who were bleeding. For that to happen he needs our help.
The story of the Good Samaritan is one of those that is hard for preachers because we all know that the message is to care for those who are in need and we also know that we simply can’t; there are too many who are in need and there is only so much we can do. So we hear the story again, we nod agreement, but it doesn’t change us, it doesn’t startle us.
In Jesus’ day, to tell a story about a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan would be startling to his listeners. They were used to stories about priests, Levites and ordinary Israelites like themselves. This story would be like the opening line of the joke, “a priest, a minister, and a gang banger walk into a bar.” That grabs our attention because we are expecting to hear the line, “a priest, a minister and a rabbi walk into a bar.”
Parables are not straightforward answers to a question. They are food for the journey to get us thinking about the questions we have in new ways. The lawyer or legal scholar who is in conversation with Jesus here asks him two questions. The first, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” is answered not with a parable, but with a clear quotation from Scripture, “Love God and love your neighbour.” Does this really answer the question, though?
In the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, the question asked by the lawyer is: “What is the first or greatest commandment?” This sounds more like a test question. Jesus’ answer in Mark is simply to quote the prayer which is to Jews as central and as well known as the Lord’s Prayer is to Christians. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one God, and you shall love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.”
The answer to “what is the greatest commandment?” is for a Jew, or a Christian, really indisputable. It is the answer Jesus gives. You can look it up in the same book he quotes from.
In Luke’s version, the question is different, less a test I think than it is a genuine desire to hear Jesus’ opinion. There is no such clear answer. The passage that Jesus quotes states a general principle, but the lawyer’s second question begins to get at the underlying difficulty of application in the complex circumstances that arise in life, circumstances such as those that arose on the road going from Jerusalem to Jericho.
The lawyer in our story is often criticized for his follow-up question. Most versions say he wanted to justify himself, while Eugene Peterson in his translation of the gospels says he was looking for a loophole, which I think is a slander on lawyers. Because the question “Who is my neighbour?” is not an easy one to answer. Even with Jesus’ brilliant parable, I’m still not sure who my neighbour is. That is because a question like “who is my neighbour?” divides the world into neighbours and non-neighbours. Jesus is not willing to answer the question with a list of who’s in and who’s out because that would create a loophole. Once we know who our neighbours are we can safely ignore everyone else. What Jesus does with the story is really to respond to the lawyer’s first question, which was, “what must I do.” In brief Jesus’ response is “you must be neighbourly, without worrying about whether the other person fits into the category of neighbour or not.”
A team of research psychologists at Princeton University in New Jersey conducted an interesting experiment reported by Malcolm Gladwell in his bestseller, “The Tipping Point.” They asked a series of students studying for the ministry to prepare a short talk on a biblical passage. Then, at different times, they asked each student to go from the professor’s office across the campus to deliver their sermon in the chapel. Unknown to the students, the experimenters had hired an actor to dress as a homeless person and to lie on the ground moaning in pain just outside the chapel door. Some of the students had been asked to prepare their talk on this very story of the Good Samaritan, yet it made no difference to how they reacted to the derelict in distress. Most of the students ignored him. Some even stepped right over him as they made their way into the chapel.
Now we might think this demonstrates how hypocritical seminary students are. But the experimenters’ point was not to show that the students were uncaring or self-centred, but rather that they were acting in response to a cultural pressure stronger than Biblical teaching or their own desire to be helpful and to serve other people.
There was one thing the experimenters did that made some degree difference between whether the students stopped to help or not. Some of the students were told that they were late for the talk they were supposed to be delivering and some of them were told, “It isn’t on for a little while yet, but why don’t you go over now and get there in good time.” Of those who were told they were late, 63% ignored the homeless person. Of those who were told they had lots of time, only 10% ignored him.
We don’t know for sure why the priest and the Levite did not stop. Clearly something was on their minds. Perhaps they were in a hurry, like those seminary students. Biblical commentators often speculate that they were concerned about touching someone who was ritually unclean such as a man covered in blood, or perhaps even dead, would be in the cultural understanding of that day.
My own view is that it doesn’t matter what their reasons were, nor does it matter that they were Jewish, like the man in the ditch is usually assumed to be. The fact is that they did not stop; therefore, if we follow the logic of the story, they were not neighbourly towards the man, though they were neighbours in the technical sense of being fellow Jews.
Jesus is not concerned with the role, or office or ethnic background of the person in need. A neighbour is simply someone who cares for another; that is clear. A neighbour is someone who crosses the lines that culture draws, lines that excuse our ignoring each other. Thus the Samaritan puts aside the Jewish-Samaritan hatred and helps the victim.
But here’s the thing; if the priest and the Levite behaved in a non-neighbourly way, does that mean they aren’t my neighbours? Am I exempted from the great commandment to love them as I love myself? This question is for me the hardest part of all about this parable.
The priest and the Levite represent the people in this world who ignore the needs of others because they are pre-occupied with their own concerns. That, my friends, is each of us. We all walk past the victim in the ditch. We all pay more attention to what people will think or what is foremost in our minds, than we do to the poor, the widow and the orphan. And because we do, we, like the priest and the Levite and indeed the lawyer who questioned Jesus, we need the love and compassion of our neighbours, lest we go through our lives immersed in our own concerns without making compassionate connection with our brothers and sisters.
Each of us is both the Samaritan who gave help and the religious official who walked by on the other side of the road. At times we behave as neighbours to the stranger, and at times we ignore those who are in need. We have the capacity to be neighbours, but we also need neighbours to help us be more neighbourly to one another.
When Jesus said “go and do likewise,” the narrow interpretation is that he is telling us all to travel deserted roads with bandages and a VISA card looking for victims. The broader interpretation is that he is telling us to be alert for opportunities where we can identify others who are in need, others to whom we can minister. These may be people bleeding in the streets, but they may also be people who look like they are doing just fine but, in fact, are so out of touch with the world that they can’t even see the destitute as they step over them on their way to keep an appointment. Those who suffer from that type of blindness are not in the desperate straits of the homeless, but they too are our neighbours and we are called to love them as well.
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